Leaders from France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia are due to meet in Minsk on Wednesday in the latest attempt to reach a peace deal in the Ukrainian conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the summit was conditional on some issues first being resolved. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on a visit to Washington Monday ahead of the proposed meeting, warned that the ‘peaceful order of Europe’ is at risk if the West abandons the principle of territorial integrity.
Hopes for an agreement are pinned on the meeting in Belarus. It could prove a critical turning point, says Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“Were this to fail, it would be difficult to see how certain other steps, like arming the Ukrainian military, will not be taken instead,” he said.
Washington is debating giving arms to Ukraine if the talks fail. In Eastern Europe especially there is a belief that Russia must not be appeased, says Eyal.
“For a lot of new member states in the [NATO] Alliance, this is a matter of life and death," he said. "And not doing anything to stop Russian aggression raises very serious questions about the security arrangements in Europe. So not doing anything is not an option either.”
Europe opted Monday to freeze new sanctions on Russia ahead of the Minsk meeting. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond urged European partners to maintain the pressure on Moscow.
“Until we see Russia complying on the ground withdrawing troops, closing the border, stopping the flow of weapons we can't relieve the pressure in any way,” he said.
Ukraine and the West will aim to ensure that any agreement does not allow a frozen conflict to take hold, says Samuel Greene of the Russia Institute at King’s College London.
“Having some kind of a mechanism and a way forward that allows over time Kyiv to restore its sovereignty and its control over this territory," he said. "I think the Russians and the separatists will be pushing as hard as possible to make sure that there is no clear guarantee or way forward.”
Russia and Ukraine signed a cease-fire deal in September. But the conflict has intensified, resulting in gains for the Russia-backed separatists.
“If we were to accept the cease-fire according to the lines imposed by Russian troops today, then it will be seen in Ukraine as a cave-in to the Russians,” said the Royal United Services Institute's Jonathan Eyal.
Writing in an Egyptian newspaper Monday ahead of a visit to Cairo, Putin repeated his accusation that the West had caused the crisis by forcing Kyiv to choose between East and West. Moscow still views the crisis through the geopolitical prism of the Cold War, says Eyal.
“It seems determined to look at the world in terms of spheres of influence - either it’s my satellite, or it’s your satellite. In that kind of an environment, it’s very difficult to see any durable agreement,” he said.
With such wide differences, analysts say the best hope is for a cease-fire deal that will slow the bloodshed and allow further talks on the future of Ukraine.